The Road to Death House Part 1

Let’s build on Eli Roth’s prescient observation. I have written quite a bit on cynicism in filmmaking. If you are just coming to my series, stop here. Go back and read my other pieces. Then you can read this in context. However, he is talking about a SMALL percentage of fans.

This is not a general description at all. We prefer to focus on the majority of horror fans that do the opposite of Roth’s comments.

I have provided an open door, a very wide door, into the production of a movie since “Death House” started filming. “Death House” is my fifth feature film: the fifth I have written and the third I have directed. It’s been a long road, and frankly, I am doing what no one else is doing in Hollywood, making consistent, high quality product on very low budgets. I’ve made one film a year since doing this profession full time.

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The cast and crew of “Death House” on the very first day of shooting, April 4, 2016

“Death House” was brought to me at a screening for my previous film “Zombie Killers: Elephant’s Graveyard.” Agent Michael Eisenstadt brought producers Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase of Entertainment Factory to the screening to meet me. They had a project written by Gunnar Hansen and Mike thought I was the guy for them to meet. Rick did not want to meet me, let alone sit through a zombie movie. I can’t blame him.

Here is why I made a zombie film in the first place: http://leglesscorpse.us/made-zombie-movie-open-letter-filmmaker-harrison-smith/

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Entertainment Factory Producers Steven Chase (l) and Rick Finkelstein (r) on set of “Death House”

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Producer Michael Eisenstadt (r) on set with Barbara Crampton

They pitched me the idea. “Texas Chainsaw” legend Gunnar Hansen, Leatherface himself had a script that would feature a large collection of horror names. At its center were four evil beings known as The Four Horsemen. A group of people descend into the bowels of an abandoned asylum to find it’s not exactly abandoned. The media had dubbed this film, called “Death House” as “The Expendables of Horror.” To be clear, the media created that tag, no one affiliated with the film did.

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Gunnar Hansen, creator of the original “Death House” story and gentle giant and man.

These guys had been trying to make it since roughly 2010. A rewrite was done on Gunnar’s original script by another author, but it did not improve on what was already in place. “The bones are all there,” Eisenstadt told me in a lunch meeting the following day. I agreed to read Gunnar’s original script and this rewrite on the plane ride back home. They wanted me to rewrite the script and direct the film.

Cynicism was already on the table before me. “The Expendables of Horror” made what should be a serious horror film sound like a gimmick. It implied a “who’s who” type of style that would be nothing more than an “R” rated “Scooby Doo” episode. Remember those episodes where they met the likes of Phyllis Diller, Don Knotts, Batman and Robin, Josie and the Pussycats and The Addams Family? “It’s Don Knotts! Famous comedian and actor!” (For all those young kids…you know… the target audience, who had no friggin’ clue who the guy was).

I called Gunnar and we discussed his script. He readily admitted that dialogue was not his thing. He wanted a high concept type of horror film and was not happy with “The Expendables” thing either. He was not a fan of the revise, and I agreed. So it was up to me to take what he had in place and see what I could come up with. Gunnar was soft spoken and gentle. He made it clear: do whatever I needed to, but the title “Death House” had to stay and the concept of the “Four Horsemen” had to stay.

Understood.

I started on a treatment. I re-read Gunnar’s script and tossed the revise. Nothing from that revise was usable. Gunnar’s themes were of good and evil, the concept we hold of both. I liked that and used it as my center. However it was while I was brainstorming at a local bar/restaurant that the entire concept came to me. It was Superbowl weekend. I was “that guy” standing at a bar high top with my iPad looking like the Starbucks writer when the first trailer for “Jurassic World” came over the TV.

Readers of my pieces know how I feel about “Jurassic World.” You read so here: http://horrorfuel.com/?p=10845

I didn’t know that at the time. However the entire concept hit me: what if Death House wasn’t an asylum but a prison? What if a tour of that prison went wrong? Like really wrong? What if the monsters got out? The ride breaks down…instead of “The Expendables of Horror” we had “Jurassic Park Without the Dinosaurs?”

The Four Horsemen became The Five Evils. I added a fifth baddie to complete the points of the pentagram and made her a woman. A majority of horror audiences are women. Hollywood has only recently discovered that women can kick ass and be strong action and genre stars. I knew this since my first film, “The Fields” and did decades before that. So The Evils got a female added to their Evil Men’s Club.

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I created the characters of agents Jae Novak and Toria Boon. A male and female team that are the top graduates of some academy that allows them an exclusive tour of “Death House” as they will be working for it soon enough. Novak is a John McClain type with a dash of Fox Mulder and Captain Kirk shaken not stirred. Boon is a quiet woman, smart, reserved and wishes to tow the line but is haunted. She sees through things and soon pierces the veil of the facility she tours.

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Cortney Palm (Zombeavers, Sushi Girl) as Agent Toria Boon and Cody Longo (Piranha 3D, Bring It On) as Agent Jae Novak

I made Death House the Area 51 of prisons. The world’s worse killers are secretly imprisoned here. Even Congress knows nothing of Death House. It is below top secret…

History figured into the rest of the plot. I studied human experimentation in war and peacetime. I dug up data on the alleged CIA MK Ultra experiments with mind control,  human conditioning and other nefarious acts performed in the name of science. I created the characters of doctors Karen Redmane (Barbara Crampton) and Eileen Fletcher (Dee Wallace) who supervise everything in Death House and know exactly what is going on.

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The Five Evils were secured in the lowest level, Dante’s level 9, of Death House. They are so hostile, so vile, they can never be allowed to walk the earth again. They are also supernatural.

I needed a strong villain to pursue our federal agents when things go to hell. I created Sieg, (Kane Hodder) a hulking Neo Nazi who was apprehended by agent Boon after a 6 month covert mission inside his camp brought him to justice…and Death House. Or was it Sieg’s plan all along. You see, Sieg may not be totally human either. He’s a devotee to Nazi occultism, and he knows of The Five Evils….

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And those aren’t even spoilers.

So far it isn’t your average run of the mill horror slasher. I wanted “Mad Max, Die Hard meets Seven.” I think we got that.

“Death House” is NOT a mashup of Jason Vorhees fighting Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. That’s not horror. That’s WWE meets Abbott and Costello. If you wanted that as a horror fan, then you are not a true horror fan.

True horror fans know the genre, its history and crave something new and fresh.

We have seen Roth’s views come true with “Death House” already. Comments range from the lineup of veteran stars to the plot which is anything but a mashup monster movie. Comments on a film no one has seen yet. Ahh…The Internet.

To all of that I simply reply: “Where’s your movie?” Oh, that’s right…

I also believe in the statement “Well done is better than well said.” We made a terrific movie. The veteran stars who played in it will tell you that. They know this is damned good. They also had a damned good time making it and it shows.

We did not aim low. We didn’t even aim for the middle. We offered up something new, something fresh and true horror fans will get it. It takes real effort to make shitty movie. It takes nothing to make a middle of the road one.

It starts with a good script. I gave the first draft to Mike Eisenstadt and Gunnar. Then it went to Rick Finkelstein. They loved it. Gunnar felt it was a departure from his original story but was pleased I honored his requests. Rick had a campfire reading of it over last summer and the people around it went wild for it. Gunnar called to say he gave the new script his blessing.

We now had a working script.

Then we found out Gunnar was ill. He never let on during our face to face brainstorm sessions or numerous phone calls. This gentle giant was silent on a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He was far too fine a human being to let on to anyone. Hindsight is 20/20 and looking back I think I now know why he was so urgent about the film getting made. He wanted to know the money was locking in and that it was getting done. He lobbied his horror comrades to be in the film and honor letters of intent that had been signed years earlier.

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The crew moves into “Death House”

He knew he was dying and it breaks my heart to write that.

Gunnar died last fall. His last wish to both Eisenstadt and Rick was “Get this made. Use my death to exploit it. Film it on my grave if you have to in order to get this thing made.” He was adamant and we all said we didn’t want to look like parasites or vultures. He dismissed that. “Get it made,” was his final directive.

Gunnar was gone. We had a solid script. Now we needed the money.

For all of you who ask me “how do you get your movie made?” part two of this series will explain what a long and trying road that process is.

Onward…

 


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